We all experience muscle tightness at one time or another, especially those of us that sit hunched over a desk all day. Not to worry though – there are exercises and stretches that can increase our flexibility, so we could move with ease and perform efficiently in our sport of choice; whether it’s running, cycling, swimming, or any other.
One thing I keep noticing in almost all of us are tight (and I repeat, tight!) hip flexors and hamstrings. I’ll focus on those hamstrings today because they are so often neglected and injured. Did you know that hamstring injuries are one of the most common runner injuries? Speed work especially makes the hamstrings work really hard, which is why it’s so important to stretch, release, and strengthen them.
So get ready to loosen up and maybe work up a sweat as you go through the stretches and exercises below. I illustrated some of them with photos to make them easier to follow.
To give you a mental image of the hamstrings in action, imagine that you are running. The hamstring extends your leg, flexes the knee and works hard to slow the leg down right before it makes contact with the ground. The hamstring basically lengthens and controls your leg as it comes down.
The hamstring muscles are made of 3 parts, the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris muscles in the back of the leg. Although there are other muscles that help extend the hip, the gluteus maximus, together with the hamstrings are the primary movers for hip extension.
The most common cause of hamstring injuries is muscular imbalance, often in the case of quadriceps and hamstring muscles. The quadriceps can become very strong, or overworked in comparison to the hamstrings, and can pull on the hamstrings if the hamstrings are not strong enough or flexible enough. Here is where the whole balance thing comes in. In order to get rid of the tightness and perform well in whatever your sport of choice may be, your muscles must work together and not fight each other. Getting your hamstring to loosen up and work with the glutes to balance out the quads, will help you gain strength and flexibility.
The best way to minimize hamstring imbalances is to stretch them through dynamic motions, meaning through exercises that actually move and lengthen the hamstrings. Dynamic stretches are created by the flexibility we create while we are moving. We also need to make sure to strengthen the hamstrings through targeted exercises, and I have just the exercises for you! You can also add some static stretches, rolling exercises, or self myofascial release work to your routine.
Here are a couple of fundamental pilates exercises you can do at home to increase the flexibility and strength of your hamstrings. The good news is that these exercises help with hamstring flexibility while working other parts of your body.
1. Single Leg Circles
Purpose: This exercise will stretch the hamstring, mobilize the hip joints, teach pelvic stabilization and strengthen the hip flexors.
What you do: to prepare, extend one leg out toward the tip of your mat, leg straight and foot flexed. Bend the opposite leg toward your chest and wrap both hands around the back of that knee.
Start with knee bends: Stretch the lifted leg toward the ceiling and flex your foot, feeling the stretch in your hamstring. Bend and stretch the knee 3 times to prepare for the leg circle. Doing the knee bend before the leg circle (on each side) will release the hamstring so you could get a bigger range of motion throughout the exercise.
Now we will go on to the Leg Circles.
1. Extend the raised leg toward the ceiling and point your toes to begin. Flex the foot of the bottom leg. Go only as far as you can to keep your pelvis from rocking side to side.
2. Circle the leg across the body and down toward the opposite leg. Make sure that the hip of the leg on the mat is rooted into the mat and not lifting off while you are doing the leg circle.
3. Finish the circle, and get back to the starting position with you extended leg pointed toward the ceiling. Repeat the circle 8 times.
4. Switch directions by circling the same pointed leg away from the body and back to the starting position. Repeat reverse circle 8 times.
5. Bring the raised leg down to the mat, flex the foot, and repeat with the other leg.
Breath pattern: Inhale to start the circle, exhale to finish the circle.
2.Single Straight Leg Stretch
Purpose: This exercise will stretch and increase flexibility in the hamstrings, strengthen the abdominals, and develop pelvic stability and core control.
What you do: to prepare, lie with the back on your mat, head and upper body rounded off the mat with one leg reaching toward the ceiling and the other leg reaching to the tip of your mat with the foot pointed. Let the lowered leg hover off the mat as low as you can go to keep the pelvis stable.
1. Draw the abdominals into the spine and bring the working leg closer to you, and pulse it twice toward your chest. Keep the pelvis still, pull the abdominals in with every repetition, and don’t let them rise.
2. Switch legs and keep making the scissor like movement, alternating between legs, while keeping the upper body and the head in the same position throughout the exercise. Work up to 12 on each side.
Modification: support the lifted head with your hands and do the scissor like movement without your hands helping to pull the legs in. Alternatively, you can lower the upper body down completely and use the lower body only to do the exercise.
Breath pattern: two small inhales accompany the two leg pulses, exhale when switching legs.
3. Pelvic Curl
Purpose: This exercise will strengthen the hamstrings. The hamstrings (together with the abdominals) lift the pelvis off the floor without moving the legs, and work hard to keep the body in a bridge position. It’s the abdominal-hamstring force that help move the pelvis and articulate the spine while keeping the legs still.
What you do: to prepare, lie on your mat with knees bent and feet flat on the mat, hip-distance apart. Place arms by your side with palms down.
1. Draw the abdominals in, and slowly curl the pelvis in, and lift the lower back, then the middle back, then the upper back sequentially off the mat.
2. Stay lifted, with your glutes engaged, abdominals pulled in to form a straight line on the top side of the body. Hold here for a few seconds.
3. Lower the torso, one vertebra at a time starting with the upper back to return to the starting position. Imagine that you are wearing a horizontally striped shirt, and you want to lower one stripe at a time toward the mat, starting with the top stripe.
Breath pattern: Inhale to prepare, exhale to lift off the mat into the bridge, inhale to reach a bit higher into the straight line, exhale while slowly lower down one vertebrae at a time.
These pilates exercises alone will stretch your hamstrings, but you can always do additional stretching. Specific stretching can speed up the body’s ability to learn new movement patterns and perform exercises. There are 2 important things to remember while you’re doing the hamstring stretches below:
- overcome the stretch reflex
- hold the stretch long enough, usually 45 seconds
The “stretch reflect” is the muscle’s reaction to the stretch. When the muscle is stretched, the length of the muscle changes and the muscle receptors within the muscle detect the change in length. They send a signal to the brain to contract. Your body basically tries to resist the stretch, actually causing your muscles to contract, creating a stronger flex. You can overcome the stretch reflex in a variety of ways. Some examples include a contract/release movement, an active isolated stretch, and simply holding the stretch for an extended period of time.
Make sure you don’t hold a static stretch when your muscle is not warmed up – so don’t just roll out of bed and start pulling on your hamstrings. Warm-up or exercise first, and then do the stretches.
Purpose: Contracting and releasing your hamstring before coming into the stretch will relax your muscle fibers and let you come into a deeper stretch.
What you do: Starting with laying on the mat, place a strap or a band around the arch of your foot, extend the leg as straight as possible and raise it as high as possible without lifting the hip of the mat.
1. Press the leg into the strap and contract the hamstring for one long inhale (imagine the you are pushing the foot toward the ceiling without lifting your hip off the mat), and then exhale and release the leg into a deep stretch (closer toward your chest). There should not be any movement, just a contraction of the hamstring. Repeat 3 times.
2. Hold the stretch for 45 seconds, and switch legs.
2. Active/Isolated Stretch
Purpose: You will use your quadriceps, the muscles on the opposite side of your joint, to pull the hamstrings into a stretched position to overcome the stretch reflex.
What you do: Start laying down on the mat, place a strap or a band around the arch of your foot, extend the leg toward the ceiling, and raise it up as high as possible without lifting the hip off the mat.
1. Supporting the weight of the leg with the strap, raise the leg using your quad to stretch the hamstring. Raise and lower the leg 10 times.
2. Hold the stretch for 45 seconds, and switch legs.
3. Holding the Stretch
Purpose: Overcome the stretch reflex with time.
What you do: Start laying down on the mat, place a strap or a band around the arch of your foot, extend the leg toward the ceiling, and raise it up as high as possible without lifting the hip off the mat. Hold the stretch for 45 seconds to a minute. Release and switch legs.
And if you’re a runner and looking for dynamic, runner specific stretches, check out this video from Runner’s World.